Sublet

Today’s story was written by Marissa Forbes, a writer of prose and poetry, who graduated from Pratt Institute in 2008 and has since published work in several online magazines.  You can see more of her work at www.marissaforbes.blogspot.com.  Sublet features a dilapidated apartment, an obtrusive landlord, a medicated roommate, and the desperate tenant who’s trying to hold it all together.  Enjoy!

SUBLET

by

Marissa Forbes

A “Piano Lessons” sign hangs on the rusty fence. The old Brooklyn brownstone is painted like a Victorian-style house and thick vines run up the front and block my view into the windows. The door swings open and an older man with a grey ponytail half-smiles at me, revealing teeth the color of bruised banana meat.

“Are you Natasha’s new roommate for the sublet?”

“Probably,” I say as I step past him and cautiously up the rickety staircase.  A petite twenty-something with a bounce in her voice appears and exclaims, “I am so happy to meet you!”

The apartment is filled with mix-matched stoop sale furniture; candles give the space a homey ambience. I’m slightly relieved. The brownstone needs tons work but she seems to have been here for years so it couldn’t be so bad.  She directs me to “my room.”  It’s so tiny I question if my full sized bed will even fit.

“The landlord, Fred, built these rooms when I told him I needed a roommate.  They’re not permanent, as you can see.”  She points above my head. “Those wires hooked into the brick keep the walls in place.”  She stands smiling like a teenager hiding a cigarette behind her back, like she senses my skepticism.

“Why did he put the two-by-fours on the outside of the sheetrock?”

“Dunno.”

“What’s with the foam up there by the ceiling?”

“Fred didn’t cut the walls to size…”

Chopin suddenly swells up from the floor. Dusk fills the room and casts long shadows of vines across the walls.

“…So he stuffed foam up there,” she continues.

The room becomes quaint in the autumn glow.

I smile slightly. Well, I’m pretty desperate.”

“You can move in this weekend!” Natasha shrieks.

“It’ll be November first. My current roommate is moving uptown and my new place won’t be available until March first.”

“You can pay Fred the $650 then, right?”

I nod my head and slip quickly out of the apartment.

* * *

My boyfriend carries up the last boxes. As I’m shutting the door, Fred appears at the top of the stairs.  “Be careful when you’re moving stuff in because I’m trying to keep the hallway nice.”

“We’re finished,” I say, looking past him at the walls permeated with shoddy patched-up holes, “So I wouldn’t worry about it.”

He turns back toward the stairs. I say, “Wait,” and hand him the rent check.

Jakob yells from the bathroom, “Phoebe, you won’t believe this!”

“No way! Is that a pull flush?”  I say about the tank at the top of a water pipe with a long rope hanging down by the seat.

We laugh for a minute, and then set out fitting my possessions into my “shanty-room.”

* * *

A month later, Jakob and I wake up an hour early because the delivery trucks for the grocery store across the street reach jet plane decibels rather than the usual alarm-clock-you-can’t-shut-off. I get dressed on my bed because there’s not enough room for two people to stand at the same time. We can hear Natasha crying heavily in the shower then she turns on 90s pop, which doesn’t mix well with the jarring piano lesson in the apartment below.

“I have to get out of here, it’s driving me nuts,” Jakob says. He leans in for a kiss and closes the door a little rougher than usual.  I lie in bed, reading until I have to go to work.

I have twenty minutes of peace after Natasha leaves for class and Fred heads down the block. I get up and grab the doorknob but it falls to the floor. The door is a “street find” so the latch jams in the doorframe and the knob doesn’t reconnect in the slot since there’s no knob on the outside. My heart races.

I bang my elbow against the dresser when I try to nudge the door open; I try to bump it with my butt but stub my toe on the bed leg. It’s too high to climb down the vines.  After the walls close in even more, I remember the screwdriver under my bed.  I squeeze under and shimmy the toolbox closer with my fingertips. I stab the tip between the door and frame. The door finally pops opens.  While walking to work, I calm down from the agitating forty-five minute escape.

* * *

It’s two a.m. and Natasha is in the living room framing her photography finals and I’m packing for my Christmas trip. A large metal frame hits the ground.  Glass shatters.  Natasha stands with tears welling in her eyes.

“You okay?”  I ask.

I clean everything up while she sits, sobbing about how she’s screwed because she procrastinated.

“Did a window break?” Fred yells through the door.

“No, it’s Natasha’s large-scale picture frame,” I say and she begins full-on crying, blubbering about how she’s always messing up.  I grab her anti-anxiety pills, knowing it’s the only way she copes, and give her two with a glass of water.

“You know, I really should check if a window broke.”

I swing the door open. “Really?  I just told you what broke.”

He turns to go, then stops.  “Is that your bicycle down there?”

“I told you ‘no’ when I came in earlier tonight, now goodbye,” I say with a tense jaw.

“Are you going to take this to the garbage?” He asks pointing to the glass on the trunk in the hallway.

“Yes, when it’s not two in the morning.”  I slam the door.

Between snivels, Natasha says, “I told him yesterday that it was my bike.”

* * *

I walk against a fierce wind and it’s definitely the coldest day of the new year.  At my stoop I stop a stroller that kept going when the mom let go to answer her phone. We exchange the close-call look and I head in.

As I change into lounge clothes, the vines snap away from the house and crack loudly onto my window.

Hours later, after collecting five more dead mice from under the counter, Fred hits the door with an open palm  I throw it open and stare into his beady eyes for a minute. “What?” I’m so sick of not even going a day without him knocking on my door.

“Why did you rip the vines off the house?”

I throw my hands in the air. “Are you kidding me?”

“You know those vines are older than you,” he says creepily.

“Do you live in the world?” I take a deep breath.  “Fred, it was obviously the wind.”

“Oh yeah, right,” he hisses through his chapped lips.

“Why would I rip off the vines?” I holler.  “Because I want even less privacy?”

He raises his eyebrows, which look like caterpillars spinning cocoons.

“Let’s talk about real issues. Like how you insist on playing the ‘Fifth Symphony’ at six in the morning every Saturday.”

“It’s my building, I can do whatever I want.”

“Fine.” I roll my eyes.  “How about the huge mouse problem?”

“I gave you mouse traps,” he scoffs.

“How about the oven that doesn’t work in the middle of winter.”

He walks in, opens the oven and slams it shut.  “I’m tired of paying to fix things that keep breaking.”

“It’s your responsibility,” I shout.

He walks out the door and I mumble, “Thank god I’m leaving in a few months.”

“Leave now if it’s so terrible.”

“Fine. I won’t stay or pay until the oven works.”

* * *

I sleep at Jakob’s for the rest of January and all of February.  One day I come to get my mail and some fresh clothes and there’s a note on the door: “!!!!!!!!The oven’s fixed!!! Pay me or you won’t get your mail!!!!!!”

I rip it off, go to my room, and shut the door.  My eyes widen. Crap, the screwdriver is on the counter. I try to open it but jerk back, falling on the bed with the knob in my hand.  All my nerves tingle and a scream rises out of my throat that actually drowns out the Bach.  I stomp on the floor, yelling help.  I throw myself into the door: once, twice, three times.

Tears stream down my cheeks. I climb onto my bed and jump into the door.  My head smacks the wood as I crash to the ground.  White dust rises, I stand, and the door under me is still attached to the wall.  My body is so tense that little half moons line my palms from my clenched fists.

As the dust from the fallen wall settles, I hear someone coming up the stairs. My mind races as I try to get some moisture back into my tongue. Is this really my life? The apartment door opens and Natasha drops her grocery bags. Her expression is tranquil, except her mouth is awkwardly ajar.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

And his fingers continue to provoke the piano keys beneath us.

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2 Responses to “Sublet”

  1. I really enjoyed this! It was very well written. Whether Marisa is reading this or not, I hope she keeps writing! I myself am aspiring to be a novelist- or to at least publish. I’m happy for her and her career.
    Once again- aweome job!

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